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You Won’t Be Alone Review: A Life-affirming Horror Story

You Won’t Be Alone is the most Sundancey film I’ve screened at this year’s festival. Writer-director Goran Stolevski’s blood-soaked Macedonian folk horror tale may be too art-house for mainstream moviegoers. But if you enjoy meditative, existential filmmaking, You Won’t Be Alone delivers a profound moviegoing experience.

The film takes place in the mountains and forests of 19th century Macedonia. When the movie begins, we meet a stressed-out mother named Yoana (Kamka Tocinovski) heading home to check on her newborn child. Much to her shock, Yoana returns to discover an evil witch named Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) lurking about. Witches, also known in this story as wolf-eateress’s, live off of blood, and Maria is there to chow down on Yoana’s helpless infant Nevena.

Yoana makes a desperate plea with Maria. Let her daughter live, and she will give Maria the child on its 16th birthday. Maria agrees, and as soon as she leaves, Yoana flees into the mountains to hide her daughter from the witch. But hiding the child from a powerful witch is a fool’s errand, and 16 years later, Maria arrives to claim what’s been promised to her.

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After growing up alone in a cave, teenage Nevena (Sara Klimoska) is almost feral. She can’t speak, and has no understanding of the world and her place within it. So when Maria takes the child out beyond her cave, every experience is completely alien.

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The two witches struggle to get along, and after repeatedly butting heads, Maria leaves Nevena to fend for herself in the wild. After inheriting Maria’s power to shapeshift, Nevena uses the savage magic to kill people and take their place within the community.

At first these impersonations are nothing but a means for Nevena to survive on her own. But before long, she’s intrigued by the many things life has to offer. Nevena transforms into men, women, children, and animals in a quest to understand how to live a life of meaning.

You Won’t Be Alone takes the standard witch movie premise and flips it on its head. Films usually depict witches as jaded and cynical chaos agents. They hide in plain sight, hexing their victims and sowing mistrust among the community. They fixate on humanity’s worst aspects and take joy from victimizing people they see as beneath them.

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What sets this film apart is how Nevena sees the world through a child’s eyes. She hides among people, not to cause havoc, but because she is in awe of them. At first she’s victimized by hatred and misogyny, but later on, she’s uplifted by love, joy, and a sense of belonging. Nevena starts to understand life is brutal and unfair, but the transcendent moments of beauty make these aspects easier to endure.

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Mark Bradshaw’s moving score combines with Matthew Chuang’s arresting cinematography to convey Nevena’s emotional state. The film uses a boxy aspect ratio rather than a widescreen format, further immersing you into the young witch’s wonderous world.

Chuang often captures the actors very low in the frame with lots of headspace above them. These stunning shots emphasize the overwhelming splendour of the forests, mountains, and skylines. At times, the majestic Serbian landscapes nearly swallow up the characters. Even though we’re watching the film through our own cynical eyes, the evocative cinematography ensures we relate to Nevena’s sense of wonder.

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Be aware that the visuals are breathtaking and gory in equal measure. You Won’t Be Alone features the gnarly body-horror and high death count of a grindhouse flick. In order to shapeshift, the witches must kill and eviscerate the human or beast they’re mimicking. Prepare to see plenty of goopy entrails torn from corpses. But please don’t think these gory elements make this a gruesome horror flick. Think of this movie as what may happen if Terrence Malick took a stab at elevated horror.

It may only be January, but I promise that You Won’t Be Alone will close out 2022 as one of the year’s most singular works of art. As much as I enjoyed the movie, I’m recommending it with caveats. A lot of people find this lyrical style of filmmaking slow and repetitive. However, I see the Letterboxd crowd putting this movie on best-of-year lists.

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If you fell in love with thought-provoking Sundance faves like Nine Days and After Yang, go out of your way to catch Goran Stolevski’s knockout debut feature.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review originally ran as part of our Sundance 2022 coverage.

 



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